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Study of Coal Ash Sites Finds Extensive Water Contamination

by Renee Schoof

WASHINGTON — A study released on Thursday finds that 39 sites in 21 states where coal-fired power plants dump their coal ash are contaminating water with toxic metals such as arsenic and other pollutants, and that the problem is more extensive than previously estimated.

This image may be the most iconic in recent memory when it comes to coal ash. On Christmas Eve, 2008 a coal ash pond dam broke and sent a wave of toxic coal ash flowing into the town of Kingston, Tennessee. A new report, however, shows that even contained, stored ash can have lead to water contamination and negative health impacts. The analysis of state pollution data by the Environmental Integrity Project, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to impose federally enforceable regulations for the first time. An alternative option would leave regulation of coal ash disposal up to the states, as it is now.

The EPA will hold the first of seven nationwide hearings about the proposed regulation Monday in Arlington, Va. A public comment period ends Nov. 19.

The electric power industry is lobbying to keep regulation up to individual states. Environmental groups say the states have failed to protect the public and that the EPA should set a national standard and enforce it.

"This is a huge and very real public health issue for Americans," said the director of the study, Jeff Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project. "Coal ash is putting drinking water around these sites at risk."

EIP is a nonpartisan organization that advocates for enforcement of environmental laws.

"If people ask, is there a problem EPA should address, this report answers, 'Yes' with an exclamation mark," said Lisa Evans, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Evans said that the state regulation hasn't protected people living near the waste sites from health problems. Many states have allowed the dumps to be built without adequate liners or monitoring and have done little when contamination was discovered, she said.

Of the 39 sites analyzed, 35 had groundwater monitoring wells on the grounds of the waste disposal area. All of them showed concentration of heavy metals such as arsenic and lead that exceeded federal health standards.

The other four had only water monitoring data from rivers or lakes where the waste sites discharged water. Scientists found contamination that damaged aquatic life.

The new report, following a previous study by the environmental groups and EPA's own tally, brings the number of contaminated coal waste sites to 137 in 34 states.

Thursday's report specified the amount of arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium and other pollutants found at each site. The pollutants are linked to cancer, respiratory diseases and other health and developmental problems.

Most states don't require monitoring of drinking water near the waste sites. The study found five sites where monitoring figures were available, and all of them had some contamination. In four, tests showed problems at one or more drinking-water wells. In Joliet, Ill., where the information was too limited for analysis, at least 18 nearby wells were closed because of boron contamination, the report said.

The U.S. burns more than 1 billion tons of coal a year to generate about half of the nation's electricity. It ends up with at least 125 million tons of coal waste, including ash and the sludge left from scrubbers that remove air pollutants.

Federal enforcement of coal-ash disposal rules would mean classifying the waste as hazardous. Opponents have argued that this would add costs and make it harder to recycle some of the waste to help hold down disposal costs.

The report from the environmental groups said that more than a third of the reused coal ash is for structural fill or to fill up empty mines. The report said those uses could result in water contamination.

ON THE WEB

Report on coal ash contamination at 39 sites

EPA information on coal ash and details of its proposals for future regulation.

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